Because they play host to millions of living, breathing things, cities become living, breathing things themselves. Some parts of a city can wither away to almost nothing, only to get revived when new blood pumps into it. The uncomfortable truth of where that blood comes from, and what it sustains, lies at the heart of Ezra Claytan Daniels and Ben Passmore’s BTTM FDRS.
If you’ve lived in a major urban center in the last few decades, then you’ve probably seen a gentrification cycle up close.
Economically depressed areas get an influx of artists and students chasing after cheap rent, creative resurgence lends cache to a once-dangerous part of town, costs of living go up, and the people who were in the neighbourhood all along get shunted to parts unknown.
Personal and regional histories are selectively erased, a lack of resources gets rebranded as quirk, and the businesses that pop up - like artisanal mayonnaise stores - stand in stark contrast to what had traditionally been in locales like America's Brooklyn, Philadelphia, or Los Angeles.
Cartoonists Ezra Claytan Daniels and Ben Passmore have both lived in places that transformed because of gentrification. Daniels put out the award-winning sci-fi stunner Upgrade Soul last year while Passmore’s been creating sharp comics work in print and on the web like Your Black Friend. After meeting in person years ago, the two creators teamed up on BTTM FDRS, a horror graphic novel focused on a very weird building in a fictional version of Chicago.
BTTM FDRS’ main character is Darla, a young black woman trying to get a fashion label off the ground. Darla’s moved to an imposing eyesore building in the rundown Bottomyards neighbourhood because the rent’s cheap. But when she and best friend Cynthia stay a few nights there, it becomes clear that something is horrifically wrong with the building.
As the mystery deepens, Darla and Cyndi rub up against an opportunistic landlord, trend-chasing fashionistas, bemused locals, other tenants, and eventually each other.
The story in BTTM FDRS comes to life via Passmore’s energetically squiggly linework, weighted down by ominous inks and throbbing through a neon palette that lurches from lurid to chic and back. When I spoke to Daniels and Passmore on the phone last week, the pair told me about what they’ve witnessed as places they’ve lived in became more gentrified and the layers of metaphor folded into BTTM FDRS.
Gizmodo: You guys have been cartoonists working solo for the most part; what is it that made you decide to collaborate on BTTM FDRS?
Ezra C. Daniels: I finished Upgrade Soul a few years ago and it took me 15 years to finish that book. And after I finished it, I decided I didn’t want to draw another comic anytime soon, so, for my next project I knew I wanted to collaborate with an illustrator. That was the impetus for me to start looking for someone to collaborate with in an illustrative capacity.
Gizmodo: Ben, what made you say yes?
Ben Passmore: We had met at the Chicago Alternative Comics Expo several years ago. I had seen Ezra’s work on Tumblr and I was curious about him because how he worked was really good. But also, we’ve joked all the time that we look related. We’re both bald and light-skinned, which, you know, is real rare for the spaces we operate in...
Eventually, me and Ezra collaborated on a short comic for Speculative Relationships. I did some colour work for Upgrade Soul and was just a really big fan of Ezra’s comics and his approach. I had done art for people’s scripts over the years before that, primarily for money but the scripts were really bad. Ezra’s writing is super-strong, so I was excited to be working on something I could be proud of.
Gizmodo: Ezra, once you knew it was going to be Ben illustrating BTTM Feeders, were there specific things you changed about your approach once he was locked in?
Daniels: I had a draft of the script when I decided to work on the project with Ben, but I went back and polished it off after I met Ben and became familiar with his work. I think there’s a lot of Ben’s voice in the actual story, especially in the character’s dialogue.
Once I knew Ben was involved, there was some polishing of the script to make it fit Ben’s style a little more. And also, Ben’s style and aesthetic and approach to comedy was rubbing off on me as I got to know him better and become familiar with his work.
Gizmodo: The Julio character, in particular, feels like it has Ben’s imprint on it. So, one of the things that really struck me was that it felt like the use of body horror was super intentional.
The 1970s schlock horror vibe and Cronenberg influences swirl around the historical propaganda that painted black people as monsters, especially in urban environments. Can you talk about the mix of ideas?
Daniels: Yeah, there’s a lot of stuff going on behind-the-scenes in BTTM Feeders. I’m obviously referencing The Thing, Cronenberg, Tetsuo: The Iron Man; I was really into Japanese horror around the time I was writing this book. There’s a lot of inspirations like that.
There’s also a lot of satiric inspirations, like, specifically things like Watermelon Man by Mario Van Peebles, and Chameleon Street. There’s a great history of gonzo, almost non-narrative approaches to black satire I was thinking about, too.
It was tough to work all these ideas in and I wanted to go with a body horror conceit superficially just because I’m selfishly really interested in that, and I felt like it was going to be a really fun story to tell. So I think my initial goal was to do something fun, especially after Upgrade Soul—which is a really heavy and earnest story. I wanted to do something fun but obviously, still use it as a form of commentary.
Gizmodo: Ben, tell me what you drew on for visualising this world. The building itself is a super brutalist eyesore, like a place that couldn’t exist, but also could. How did you envision this building, which was the centrepiece of this story?
Passmore: Well, Ezra had already designed the exterior and the layout when I came to the book. We already knew what the outside would look like, and sort of what the general outline would be. I was pretty cognisant of what Ezra was referencing: artists entering these sort of warehouse spaces and the weird, detached fascination with decrepit industrial spaces.
I, for some reason, love brutalist architecture. Which is something worth deconstructing. [Laughs.] I had spent my 20s breaking into abandoned factories and walking around in them. I think I’ve always been compelled with people trying to make deeply inhospitable places home. And that became something that I just wanted to push.
Initially, my idea was to have it be more like the standard brick factory building with windows onto pipes and stuff. But I felt like the reader would feel more at home in that since people are making restaurants or apartments more commonly in those kinds of buildings. I wanted the reader to constantly ask themselves why people would try to live in that place. So, I just mostly drew really hostile, concrete brutalist architecture for the inside.
Gizmodo: This book is very nakedly about gentrification, right? But I feel like even the broad strokes of the gentrification cycle have become so familiar as to become rote. I moved to Austin three-and-a-half years ago and it’s been rough because it’s also one of the few cities in America with a shrinking black population.
East Austin is the hip, hot neighbourhood where all the cool kids hang out. Prior to all this, of course, it was the black enclave where everybody got pushed out. And these cycles are so familiar to the point you can become numb to them. Was BTTM FDRS at all a reaction to that?
Daniels: Yeah, absolutely. Like you said, it’s nakedly about gentrification but the thematic core is about cultural appropriation. As I was trying to suss out the themes of gentrification, I noticed a lot of parallels in those same cycles. The cycle that I figured out, there were five stages.
The first is, the appropriator fears something, then they covet something, then they take it, and then they make it their own. And by making it their own, they nullify its power. And then they abandon it without repercussions. And those are the five cycles I saw in both gentrification and cultural appropriation. So, BTTM FDRS is actually about cultural appropriation, specifically in hip hop.
I just kind of transposed it into the world of just this young art student trying to make a life in a gentrifying neighbourhood. But all the characters follow archetypes in the hip hop world. So there’s the Nicki Minaj/Iggy Azalea conflict at the center. There’s the obsessive record collector who has these conspiracy theories around the culture that don’t make any sense, but he’s completely committed to them.
Then, there’s the record exec type who is represented by the landlord who sees that there’s money to be made in this culture, but doesn’t understand it. And the monster itself represents hip hop culture. Something that was created to be altruistic and benevolent but, in the wrong hands, can be weaponised into something really dangerous.
Gizmodo: You know, I didn’t pick up on any of that at all. I have to be real. My thought was that this has reminded me of stuff I was seeing in Williamsburg when I was living in Brooklyn. So I was drawing a one-to-one corollary to it. But yeah, now that you say that, I’m like, “Of course!”
Daniels: Yeah, and that’s the interesting thing to me. How one-to-one these things are. Like, they follow the exact same cycle. And the story obviously works as a gentrification story, but, when you take a step back, it completely applies to every time they try to take stuff from us.
Passmore: I think something that’s also potentially subversive about the book - that also follows neatly into a horror trope - is how the reader’s understanding of what the monster is, or the nature of it, changes.
That feels similar to when I was growing up in Massachusetts with my mum. She was really into Pilgrims, and there’s this narrative you’re taught—at least I was taught it in school: the Indians got all savage and killed people. But then I got older and learned more, so what felt dangerous and monstrous becomes understandable as a response to encroachment.
I think by the end [of BTTM FDRS], we have this understanding of the monster as a potential tool for liberation or defence. So I just like that about it.
Gizmodo: The ending totally surprised me. BTTM FDRS reads like you guys have experience in neighbourhoods as they were gentrifying. What was the most horrific thing you experienced living in a gentrifying neighbourhood?
Passmore: Oh, man. I lived in New Orleans for a long time, where there’s this neighbourhood called the Marigny. It’s mostly residential and butts up right against the French Quarter and other neighbourhoods that were particularly desirable for transplants to move into. It wasn’t 100 per cent black, but it was majority black before Katrina.
A lot of the gentrifying spaces had become deeply uninhabitable. In New Orleans, in particular, there were heavy narratives about crime and there’s a lot of gentrifiers getting guns.
There was an incident where a young kid, 15 years old, hopped over the fence of a white homeowner, who shot him in the head. The kid lived. But, just watching the dialogue about it, and the ways in which gentrifiers use overtly colonist language to sort of justify shooting young black kids, was horrific.
These are people who are responsible for gutting these whole neighbourhoods. Then, when teenage mischief happens, even though gentrifiers are often directly responsible for the economic changes driving the mischief, they use that mischief as reason to murder someone. That was probably one of the earliest examples in my neighbourhood where I was like, “Oh, my God... this is just colonialism.”
Daniels: Yeah, I think it’s telling that the story that I thought of when you asked that was also an instance of white-on-black crime, which is completely counter to the narrative that everyone’s told about in these gentrifying neighbourhoods.
Especially in these neighbourhoods that are predominantly black. But I live in Los Angeles in a neighbourhood called Leimert Park, which is a very quickly gentrifying neighbourhood in South-ish L.A. About a year after I moved here, I was at the mall with my girlfriend and we were just shopping and heard gunshots in the mall. We took cover in the shoe store that we were shopping at and assumed it was gang violence. Because that’s the narrative of this neighbourhood, which is 80 per cent black.
Once the smoke cleared, we put our heads up and saw it was a police shooting. There was a guy who was having a mental health crisis in the mall, and the police came and opened fire on this guy and shot the place up. Like, this was a crowded mall full of people, and the window of the T.J. Maxx was shot out, there was bullet holes in the wall everywhere.
When we put our heads up, the EMT people were trying to revive this guy but he was long dead. And this was right outside the shoe store we were shopping at. They were trying to resuscitate this guy and it’s like the most unsafe I’d ever felt any place I lived. And it wasn’t because I was worried about being mugged on the street, it was because I was worried about the LAPD in this neighbourhood that I just moved in to.
Gizmodo: One of the things that’s so insidious about these gentrification cycles is how we’re told that they eliminate danger and make neighbourhoods safer. But the reality is that one kind of danger is traded for another asymmetrically distributed kind, which impacts people who’ve been there and recent transplants differently.
Daniels: A big part of BTTM FDRS is just trying to reconcile, as an artist, living in a neighbourhood I wasn’t born in but am trying to become a part of the community.
Gizmodo: It’s a weird dissonance, right? I’m a black dude who was born in Brooklyn to Haitian immigrants, grew up in Long Island in my adolescence, then I moved to Harlem. On one hand, it felt like home to me, right? Because all this history and culture I identify with and support and try to work inside of is surrounding me.
On the other hand, I’m not from that hood. People on the street don’t know me. I thought that was a really interesting thing you did with Darla, making her a trust fund kid. There’s a kind of adventurism to her planting a flag in this neighbourhood, in this building, while at the same time not really being of this neighbourhood, herself.
Passmore: It definitely would be nice to have conversations about gentrification not explicitly rooted in identity politics and for people to have a wider understanding of its proximity to aspects of whiteness.
To me, whiteness is a palette, but also a logistical situation. It’s a proximity to privilege and power. And you know, in New Orleans, black people are for sure complicit in the gentrification on their city by intentionally prioritising selling to get a lot of money, only renting to white people, changing businesses that cater to white people.
There’s an understandable reason people might do that; that’s economic. But in a lot of ways, the story of gentrification is a lot more complicated. And I definitely relate to what you were saying about living in Harlem.
I lived in the south for a long time and, as a mixed-race guy from Massachusetts, often had these weird interactions where white friends of mine would look for my opinion about the consensus of black people in the south. And I’m like, “I don’t know any better than you.” I talk like Don Lemon.
Gizmodo: Wow, you went to Don Lemon, CNN’s own.
Passmore: I have no idea why. [laughs] White people are not the smartest about race, obviously, but also maybe we all run up against the general limitations of the dialogue we’re still having about gentrification.
Gizmodo: Speaking about white folks in these kinds of stories, I found Cynthia was oddly crafted. As reprehensible as she is for most of the book, it’s possible to have sympathy for her. She is trying to support her friend. But she’s also trying to profit off her friend’s proximity to this culture she wants to be part of. Can you talk about the bounds of her character in particular?
Daniels: I think that’s something that, as a person of colour who has a lot of white friends, it’s important to take a step back every once in a while and question why people are adamant about picking your friends.
With Cynthia’s character, she grew up with Darla, and there’s definitely a connection there. But I’ve definitely had friends in the past who were like, “why is this person constantly calling me to hang out? I don’t feel like I’m reciprocating this friendship. What are they gaining from trying to be my friend?”
And when I take a step back, I’m like, “Ohh. I’m that person’s only black friend.” So, it’s important that they maintain this relationship, if I am not trying to maintain this relationship. I think that’s a big part of where Cynthia comes from. So she’s fundamentally sympathetic in that she has this relationship with Darla, but, it’s completely superficial and she has an ulterior motive which is very selfish.
Gizmodo: And Ben, you wrote a whole comic strip about that phenomenon.
Passmore: Right. There’s one part I love that Ezra wrote, which is genius. Cynthia comes to Darla’s apartment ostensibly to apologise but ultimately can’t do a real apology because she’s just ultimately prioritising her own sense of right. Like, she can’t fully accept that she is part of a larger system of peripheralizing black experiences. And that feels very instructive.
I don’t know if anyone will necessarily recognise that, that’s a white reader. But I feel like that’s essentially—and maybe what’s essentially what I was trying to do in my own comic—is just sort of be like, “Hey. You can have your feelings. But...you need to actually make space for other people’s experiences.” Which I admit to being very hard.
BTTM FDRS is out now in brick-and-mortar and digital storefronts.